What do you get when you cross Disgaea with Atelier? Actually, don't answer that. But if you don't understand the question, this won't be the game for you. Trinity Universe is the Japanese RPG taken to its most baffling extreme, a sprawling, surreal and silly post-modern dungeon-crawler populated by bizarre characters, ridiculous stat-chasing and endless static dialogue scenes.
A three-way collaboration by some of the more inventive minds in the genre, it mashes Nippon Ichi's Disgaea up with Gust's Atelier series, and seasons the mix with additional development work by the less famous Idea Factory. The result, somewhat inevitably, is rather strange.
At the core of the game is the Netheruniverse, a curious reality currently threatened by incoming space debris that conveniently contains dungeons stuffed with treasure and monsters.
You explore these self-contained stages, defeat whatever creatures you find, hoover up the goodies then destroy the gravitational anomaly to send the whole place spinning back into the void. Oh, and you need to race to the exit before that happens, or you end up sucked into outer space as well.
The spoils of your sorties can then be used to stock up on healing items, new weapons and "Managraphics", which act as status boosts. In any other JRPG these would be magic gems. Here they're cute stickers, which should give you an idea of the tone the game strikes. Slap a cherry blossom sticker on your sword and petals float through the air with every strike. Gears of War it is not.
Combat encounters are triggered randomly and are turn-based with a heavy bias towards combo fighting. Each turn grants your characters limited Action Points, which start ticking away almost immediately.
Quick decisions are called for, but there's little menu-selecting to wade through. Each face button is mapped to a different kind of attack - Normal, Strong and Magical, basically - with the circle button reserved for character-specific special moves. While a character is active, you can input whatever sequence of attacks you want, and certain combinations result in special attacks that do more damage.
You can opt to save your AP for the next turn, essentially doubling your available resources for a more prolonged assault, but things get more interesting when you realise you can overlap the combos, turning the last two buttons of one combo into the first inputs of the next, saving AP and unleashing ridiculous barrages that send your hit counter skyrocketing.
You can also tap R1 during any character's turn to create a Fury Chain with a chosen partner, allowing damage and other effects to carry over into their combos as well.
It's a deep and initially confusing system, but one that yields impressive results the more you play with it. The emphasis is on rapid levelling up (you'll hit level five before leaving the intro dungeon) and the accumulation of increasingly silly numerical values attached to weird items.
This is the heart of the game, but there are also two stories to get through. Each follows a new character - Rizelea the Valkyrie and Kanata the Demon Dog King - although the difference is really only evident in the numerous story sequences.
It's these that will really test the patience of all but the hardiest JRPG apologist; rambling, scatological conversations told through omnipresent dialogue boxes and sparsely animated sprites. During the game's first few hours, you'll spend more time watching the cast bicker about haircuts, tea and boobs than you will battling monsters.
You can at least set the game to automatically advance through these sections, rather than hitting X at the end of every line, but the temptation to speed through them, or make a sandwich, is increasingly hard to resist as these endearing but ultimately inconsequential indulgences drag on and on.
Fans of Disgaea and Atelier will no doubt relish the chance to see characters like Etna and Prinny realised in full polygon 3D for the first time, but this isn't a game that will be winning any beauty awards.
The dungeon environments are rigidly designed, character models have a PS2 whiff about them, the camera control is sticky and the monsters - while suitably wacky - are hardly impressive either. The looped music, as with so many JRPGs, sounds like the accompaniment to the world's most annoying waltzer funfair ride.
Such technical considerations are unlikely to concern the game's target audience, however. Like Disgaea, this is a game designed for the long haul. The dungeons aren't an end in themselves, but stepping stones on the path to bigger and bigger damage statistics.
In fact, if you find a dungeon floating around that you really like, you can buy special "anchors" to hold it in place so you can mine it for trinkets over and over. The game throws out random loot with giddy abandon, so it's unlikely you'll ever run into the same combination of items twice, even if the actual environments seem to be constructed from the same handful of textures over and over.
Of the two parents, Trinity Universe certainly seems to favour Disgaea more than Atelier, at least based on the early sections of our half-translated preview code. It's sarcastic and post-modern, with characters commenting on the fact they're in a videogame, mocking JRPG clichés or expressing their dramatic pauses through self-consciously distracting "..." speech bubbles. It's funny, but only for the very patient or (let's be honest) very nerdy.
It would be nice to think that the dungeon-crawling might be spruced up before Trinity Universe gets its Euro release at the end of June, but since the game has been out in Japan for over six months that seems unlikely. With two existing game universes to cram into its original setting, and three distinctive development teams sharing the code, there was always a danger that the old adage about too many cooks would be proven correct.
Certainly, there are plenty who will take one sip and declare the broth spoiled. For the devoted niche being targeted, however, this acquired taste might be just the ticket.
Trinity Universe is due out for PS3 on 26th June.